Although fictional films can prove just as enlightening, the documentary form has, by its very nature, been an invaluable cinematic resource for the discovery and proliferation of global cultures, ideologies and individuals of prominence. What makes the documentary particularly fascinating, as a result, is its breadth of material and multiplicity of forms. It can assume a relatively straightforward approach, as in Ahmed El Maânouni’s Trances (1981), about a group of Moroccan musicians, or it can take shape as something of a dramatized variation, as in Redes (1936), directed by Emilio Gómez Muriel and Fred Zinnemann, about a Mexican fishing community. What often comes across, in either case, is a snapshot of a specific time and place, and the people who tap into the national consciousness of that era or stand as emblematic figures of its essential existence.
In Trances, the individuals comprising the band Nass El Ghiwane — Omar Sayed, Larbi Batma, Abderrahman Kirouche and Allal Yaâla — are shown to be more than merely a popular group of performers, though that they certainly are. They are, more significantly, in the words of Martin Scorsese, the “singing soul of their country.” Their lyrics speak of a prosperous nation, a better future for their kindred citizenry and the inseparable faith that unites all aspects of their evolving homeland. Progressing from an early exposure to eastern music, as well as poetry and theatrical traditions, the band members engage in revelatory historical and contemporary research, seeking out the elements of a good story, which can then translate into a correspondingly connective, typically inspiring melody. As seen and stated in the film, these four men live in a time of tremendous societal change, defined by ceaselessly fluid public and political identification, and the ideas emerging from this transitional process are paralleled in the concerns of their adoring public.
More by Jeremy Carr: World Cinema Project: Beyond the Bounds of Narrative – ‘Limite’ and ‘Mysterious Object at Noon’
One member of Nass El Ghiwane describes the band as “folk musicians who sing about peace,” but this description, however accurate, scarcely scratches the surface of their musical genesis or their reigning impact. As far as Trances itself, as a film of distinctly localized significance, it too stems from complex historical expansion. While an initial acquaintance with cinema began during the medium’s earliest days, in the late 1890s, Moroccan filmmaking was habitually at the mercy of prevailing national and colonial influences. Political agendas and propagandistic aims regularly ran counter to the desires of a genuinely regional cinema. Independence came in 1956, though, and a new generation of artists were born from this liberation. Among them was El Maânouni, whose first feature, Alyam alyam (Oh the Days!, 1978), garnered international acclaim when it played at the Cannes Film Festival. That film, as it so happened, included a song by Nass El Ghiwane, a group formally established in 1971, their name meaning, as noted by Sally Shafto, “the disciples (Nass) of a chanted philosophy (El Ghiwane).” The band “rejected Egyptian-style music (âsriya),” writes Shafto, “with its languorous love songs in the Classical Arabic that then prevailed. Instead, these minstrels of contemporary Morocco sought their inspiration in autochthonous poetry, ancestral rites, and everyday life, denouncing the unemployment, corruption and social inequality endemic to Moroccan society in particular and to Arab societies in general.” Although classic rock icons like The Rolling Stones and The Who were undoubtably fashionable, as Shafto notes, Nass El Ghiwane “made it cool to listen to the local product. Moroccans began to feel proud of their musical heritage.”
Pride is an overarching theme of Redes as well, as it details with unembellished accuracy the grueling lifestyle of its impoverished fishermen, and the wives and children who depend on their laborious efforts. The sometimes-lackluster results of this fitful endeavor are contrasted with the jubilation of a successful haul, an achievement seen reverberating throughout the entire community, signifying just how much is at stake in this critical, collaborative enterprise. Focused on the population of Alvarado, along the Gulf Coast of Mexico, Redes developed from a composite series of incidents and sources of stimulus. New York photographer Paul Strand first conceived of the concept as a documentary he intended to make in 1933. Invited to Mexico by the composer Carlos Chávez, who had a government job promoting provincial art, Strand and Chávez’s nephew, Agustín Chávez, began to instead fictionalize the project instead. Screenwriter Henwar Rodakiewicz, arriving in Mexico to assist with the production and give it narrative shape, drafted a script and prompted a friend of his, the Austrian Fred Zinnemann, to direct, which he did, working with co-director Emilio Gómez Muriel. Redes was thus, from the very beginning, a multilingual, multicultural production, and with that sundry composition came language barriers, varying aesthetic perceptions and perhaps inevitable discrepancies.
More by Jeremy Carr: World Cinema Project: Persistence of Vision – ‘Dry Summer’ & ‘Law of the Border’
Conflicts primarily arose between Strand and Zinneman, the former wanting to transfer his photographic background into a film comprised largely of static images, while the latter was looking to capitalize on the inherent action and mobility of Redes’ subject matter. This would be the first directing credit for Zinneman, who would go to have a prolific and laudatory career in Hollywood, and despite their diverging slants on visual representation, he and Strand managed to find common creative ground. Writes Charles Ramírez Berg: “Strand’s respectful formalism blended effectively with Zinnemann’s dynamism to tell the story of a young fisherman, Miro (Silvio Hernández del Valle), who organizes his fellow pescadores in defiance of an exploitative fish seller.” Both Strand and Zinnemann returned to America after shooting, which left Muriel and Gunther von Fritsch, a friend of Zinnemann’s, to edit Redes, itself a complicated task involving the syncing of sound added during post-production.
Viewed years later as a precursor to Italian neorealism (its form and content is undeniably echoed in Luchino Visconti’s 1948 La terra trema), Redes does bear several of the same traits as that hugely influential movement. Though the acting is rigid, surely owing to its amateur cast, the characters nevertheless express convincingly friendly banter, pleasant ribbing (usually about women), sincere disputes and an overriding solidarity. Against the capitalist counterpoints and related exploitation, the fishermen give voice to a variety of health and economic concerns, proclaiming their need for stability, lamenting yet adamantly enacting the rituals of death and labor, and condemning their dependency on an unjust hierarchical power structure. In a film that is, as a briefly glimpsed newspaper headline declares, “a drama of poverty and misery,” the guilt etched on the face of Miro, whose young son dies after he fails to adequately feed his family, is one of the film’s many somber expressions of distress and rage. Redes swells into an artfully stark study of a lifestyle that is downtrodden, desolate and desperate; but amongst the anguish is an equally potent emphasis on bodies in unified action and the exultation of their concerted toil.
While the mood of Redes contrasts greatly with that of Trances, which spends a dominant portion of its time devoted to Nass El Ghiwane in concert, the two films are united in this depicted physicality. Playing the darbuka, bendir, guembri and banjo, Nass El Ghiwane sing to enthused crowds that dance and cheer and burst into heartfelt applause. Their music fortifies the same congregational tissue all great music does, spurring a discernable exuberance that sometimes gets the better of certain concertgoers who rush the stage. While the band is largely stationary, with none of the flamboyance or strutting those Moroccan fans of the The Who or The Rolling Stones may have been familiar with, there is an impassioned intensity in their active pose. The group, at one point in the film described as “troubadours,” displays an “hypnotic” stage presence, in Scorsese’s words, stimulating an “electricity” and “power” enhanced by their close proximity to the audience and the direct address of their message.
More by Jeremy Carr: World Cinema Project: Nowhere Fast – ‘Touki Bouki’ and ‘Taipei Story’
Filmed in 16mm and shot over a period of several months, “with El Maânouni doing most of the camera work himself,” Trances, writes Shafto, interweaves the concert footage with filmed interviews and black-and-white archival content. In their downtime, away from performance, the members of Nass El Ghiwane evince good humor and camaraderie, permitting minor quarrels but more often speaking of the nature of art, their future as artists and the legal and individual struggles they have each encountered. El Maânouni also takes his camera to the slums of Casablanca, “a route that reveals,” according to Shafto, “both the shared heritage of the band members […] and their individual identities, thus creating a memorable portrait of the group and Morocco.” In this, Trances positions the band within a larger cultural framework, which aides in contextualizing their music and why they have the revolutionary influence they do. The scenic inserts and scenes of everyday life are therefore more than just formal filler; these essentials of the film feed the impetus for Nass El Ghiwane’s music, its philosophical and religious bearing and its consuming relationship with social prowess.
Aside from Silvestre Revueltas’ score, its widely acclaimed aural hallmark, Redes also achieves its own musical potency, especially during a concluding call to arms montage where the afflicted rally against socioeconomic inequities and empty political promises. Canvassing a wide-ranging sequence of causes and implications, the editing of this grand finale (in a film that is otherwise somewhat rough around the editorial edges) explodes with a violence born from strain and oppression. It’s a passage of awakening, of assertion, with symbolic waves crashing ashore (indeed, while the film’s Spanish language title refers to fishing nets, the English language title is The Wave). Here one not only sees the stated influence of Sergei Eisenstein — who had himself visited Mexico in the 1930s for his ill-fated ¡Que viva México!, which was left uncompleted and is yet still dazzling in its extant form — but also a blatant articulation of the film’s themes of political and social revolt, realized in a vivid illustrative statement. As with the underlying creed of Trances, the unambiguous intent of Redes’ communal message resonates in its country of origin and around the world, communicating the pleas for justice, egalitarianism and independence that are vital facets of life and are so often central to the best of all cinematic documentaries.
Watch Trances and Redes at the Criterion Channel.
Jeremy Carr (@jeremyrcarr) teaches film studies at Arizona State University and writes for the publications Vague Visages, Film International, Cineaste, Senses of Cinema, MUBI’s Notebook, Cinema Retro, Movie Mezzanine, Cut Print Film and Fandor’s Keyframe.